Let’s face it. As evolved as we like to think we are, we still resort to certain behavioral patterns when our backs are up against the wall.
A lot of times it’s easier to slide by than to face our challenges head on. We do this by falling back on familiar patterns that defend our position. That’s why they’re called defense mechanisms – and we may not even know we’re using them!
The three most common defense mechanisms are denial, rationalization and projection. Whether these terms sound familiar to you or not, I’ll bet you’ve had experience with some of the examples below (either as a sender or receiver of communication).
Are You in Denial?
First, let me make a distinction. Usually when we hear the word deny, we conjure up thoughts that a person is being less than honest. Lying is a willful and conscious distortion of facts or concealment of the truth, though, while denial can be an unconscious defense mechanism.
Do You Rationalize?
Now, let’s turn to rationalization. Rationalization means providing other reasons instead of the real reason. Over time, these other reasons can seem perfectly legitimate. And they serve to draw attention away from the true reasons. Here’s a fairly reliable rule of thumb: when people offer more than one reason for doing something, they’re rationalizing. Usually the true reason for an action is a single one.
Wow – that speaks volumes to me. And I’ll be playing detective by watching my communication – and listening to that of others – for these clues. Because rationalizations sound reasonable, they’re very deceptive; and anyone can be taken in by them. You may see some familiar patterns in these examples I’ve encountered along the way – either directly or from my research. A particularly helpful resource is the book, “Addictive Thinking.” by Dr. Abraham Twerski.
A woman who graduated as an accountant was reluctant to apply for a promising job because she was afraid of being turned down. However, the reasons she gave her family were different: (1) they’re probably looking for someone with years of experience; (2) the office is too far away to travel to every day; and (3) the starting wage is unsatisfactory.
Brian, a 29-year-old man, was at an impasse. He had dropped out of school and was unsuccessful holding a job. Brian typically did very well at work. But when his performance led to advancement or increased responsibility, he would leave the job. Brian claimed to know exactly what his problem was. His fiancée had broken off their engagement, and he wasn’t able to get over the rejection (although this had happened five years earlier).
As painful as romantic rejections are, people do get over them eventually. Why was Brian different? For whatever reason, he was terribly insecure. On one hand, going to college or accepting advancement at work might result in failure, and he didn’t want to take that risk. On the other hand, he couldn’t accept that his stagnation was due to his fears – because that would mean admitting he was not confident or brave enough.
As a result, Brian unconsciously used the defense mechanism of rationalization by tying himself to an event in his life that he felt was holding him back. Because being rejected is painful and depressing – and because people often lose motivation and initiative after a romantic rejection – this sounded perfectly reasonable to Brian. Attributing his problem to his fiance’s rejection was a reasonable explanation of why Brian couldn’t get on with his life, but it was not the true reason. The truth is that Brian didn’t want to deal with his insecurities and anxieties.
Sound familiar? Chances are you know someone who has seized on a life event and held onto it for so long that it’s now holding onto them and keeping them stuck.
Are You Projecting?
Projection means placing the blame on others for things we are really responsible for ourselves. Like rationalization, it serves two functions: (1) it reinforces denial; and (2) it helps preserve the status quo. Blaming someone else – or projecting our feelings upon them – relieves us from the responsibility of making changes. And the only person we can ever change is our self.
Peeling Off the Layers
These three defense mechanisms – denial, rationalization and projection – often occur in layers, much like the layers of an onion. As one layer is peeled away, another may be discovered underneath. Being willing to peel off these layers — and taking responsibility for our own circumstances and actions – can go a long way toward changing ingrained patterns that hold us back.
Here are some other examples of defense mechanisms. While they focus on addictions, you can see how the techniques could apply to other life situations:
- Rationalizing: “My entire shift stops in for drinks after work. We deserve a few cold ones.”
- Intellectualizing: “Two ounces of alcohol per day is recommended by health experts.”
- Blaming: “I smoke pot because I’m stuck in a boring job all day with a stupid boss.”
- Switching: “Joe drives all the time when he’s drunk. I’m glad I’m not that bad.”
- Minimizing: “I only get high at parties.”
- Joking: “I can stop drinking anytime I want. In fact, I stop at least once a week.”
- Agreeing: “Yes, I think you’re right. I should cut down on my drinking.”
- Projecting: “Next year I’ll be out of this dump – and things will be different.”
- Threatening: “I’d like to see you try to make me stop drinking beer with my friends.”
- Generalizing: “We all have a bad habit or two.”
If you find yourself stuck in a scenario that repeats itself over and over, you might want to take a look to see if you’re contributing to the problem – either consciously or unconsciously. Defense mechanisms really don’t defend us.